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The Sin of Indifference – Yom Kippur

Last night during our Kol Nidrei service, we sang the evocative words of the Ashahm’nu, the litany of transgressions in alphabetic acrostic: Ashahm’nu, bah’gahd’nu, gahdahl’nu, dihbar’nu…an acknowledgment that we betray and steal, we scorn and are cruel, we scheme and slander, we lie and ridicule…and on and on. The list exists because these are the pits into which we stumble if we are not careful about the words we use and the things we do. There is one transgression not listed and it is ah’dee’shoot. It means “indifference.”

The most compelling argument against indifference is found in the Book of Genesis in the narrative about Sodom and Gomorrah. God told Abraham the cities would be destroyed because “they are wreaking havoc in equal measure to the shrieking that is coming to Me” {1}. Would Avraham – whose name means “father of a multitude of nations” – intercede on behalf of people he did not know? Would he argue on behalf of the innocent, or be content to let them suffer along with the guilty?h

He asked God, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty innocent [people] in the cit[ies]. Will you not spare [them all] for the sake of the fifty innocent people in [their] midst?” {2}. Then he asked the question that echoes through the ages: “Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” {3} to which God responded, “If I find fifty innocent people…I will pardon the whole place for their sake” {4}.

Abraham pressed the point and asked God if the cities would be spared if forty-five innocent people were found, and God said “Yes” and so Abraham then asked God to spare the cities for the sake of forty innocent people {“Yes”}. Perhaps realizing his chutzpah, Abraham said, “God, please do not be angry [with me] but will You do so for the sake of] thirty [innocent people]?” {5}{“Yes”} and then “How about twenty?” {“Yes”} and finally “Please do not be angry, but what if [only] ten [innocent people] are found there?” {6} and God responded, “For the sake of the ten, I will not destroy [the cities]” {7} Genesis 18:32}. So ‘ten’ became the baseline for community and the number on which a minyan is based, a reminder that Abraham was not content to be silent.

This past July, Susan and I traveled to Hungary, Austria and Germany. It was not as carefree a trip as those we have taken in the past because what happened in those countries during the Holocaust weighs heavily on the Jewish soul, and the Jewish presence there is a remnant of what it once was. I was reminded time and time again that the sin of indifference and complicity enabled the slaughter to increase in intensity and depravity. There were many times on our journey I did not have words to describe what I was feeling. It felt as if oxygen had been sucked out of me.

We spent five days in Budapest, the birthplace of Theodor Herzl and Hannah Senesh, and where Raoul Wallenberg – Sweden’s special envoy – saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary by issuing protective passports and sheltering Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory.

What I will always remember about Budapest are three sites:

  • the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as The Great Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. In the waning months of World War Two, infantry and tanks pounded Budapest in what would become fifty days of intense fighting beginning in December 1944. When the city finally fell, 80% of its buildings had been destroyed, and yet remarkably the Dohany Synagogue, a major landmark and house of worship, was not damaged. The synagogue endured, but Jews fell.

 

  • we went to the monument called ‘Shoes on the Danube’ in memory of 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, who were lined up on the shore of the Danube River, ordered to take off their shoes, and were then shot by the Arrow Cross, a militant, national socialist party supporting Nazi ideology. Their bodies, pierced by bullets, fell into the Danube and they drowned. The monument is located on the Pesht side of the city. The sculptor, Can Togay [Jhan Toe’guy], created sixty pairs of period-appropriate shoes out of iron. They are attached to the stone embankment overlooking the Danube .

 

  • and we went to the Holocaust Memorial Center that pays tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust. Inaugurated in 2004, it houses a synagogue, a museum and an inner courtyard with a glass memorial wall dedicated to the over 500,000 victims with their names inscribed on the wall. The museum’s permanent exhibition tells the history of the Holocaust through the stories of individuals. Original documents and personal belongings are on display.

Ah’dee’shoot. The steep price paid by indifference, complicity and cruelty became apparent at every port we entered on a river boat cruise commencing five days after we arrived in Budapest.

The first day was a sail day and I used the time to draft thoughts for the High Holy Days in a quiet place on a small ship that held 200 passengers. People saw me writing and a few fellow passengers asked me what I was doing, and one thing led to another and so folks learned I’m a rabbi. The next day on the windblown top deck, I was hailed over by “good ol’ boys from Texas” who I would later learn carry concealed weapons in America the way I walk around with loose change. They hailed me over, asking me, “Y’all really a rabbi?” and it was all good from there. They asked me to teach them one Hebrew word a day. When daily walking tours from the ship would occasionally cross paths in cities we visited, the Texans would see me and call out, “Hey rabbi, how’s it going today?” In Germany. I know you can appreciate the irony.

We traveled to Vienna – I’ve spoken before about its synagogue and my family’s history there – and then onto Germany: to Passau and Regensburg – where we saw stolperstein – German for “stumbling stone,” which can mean “potential problem” or “to find out [by chance]”…to stumble upon…4 inch by 4 inch bronze plaques embedded in sidewalks, each bearing the name of a Jewish person who once lived in the adjacent building, inscribed with the date she or he was deported, and the name of the concentration camp inscribed as well. By the end of 2016, one could count 60,000 stolperstein in more than 1,200 towns and cities throughout Europe. There are also stolperschwellen – “stumbling thresholds” – to commemorate groups of victims when there are too many individuals to list on a single plaque. From Regensberg we traveled to Bamberg – where the ravages of Kristallacht were felt – and then Rothenberg, Wurzburg and Wertheim – among the first cities in Germany to grant Hitler honorary citizenship, a town where we saw a silver Star of David, and a silver plaque above it, high on the wall of a building, bearing the name Lina Klaus and the date October 21, 1940…the day the last Jews of Wertheim, crammed into rooms in that building, were taken out and deported to concentration camps. Then, as if connecting dots in reverse historic order, we arrived in Nuremberg, chosen by the Nazis to be the site of huge Nazi Party conventions — the Nuremberg rallies. The rallies were held in 1927, 1929, and annually from 1933–1938. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the Nuremberg rallies became huge propaganda events. The 1934 rally was filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, and made into a propaganda film called ‘Triumph of the Will.’ At the 1935 rally, Hitler ordered the Reichstag to convene at Nuremberg to pass the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws revoking German citizenship for all Jews and other non-Aryans, and was really the beginning of the end. And yet we endure, one of the miracles of history.

I was moved by the words of our guides in Germany, who told us, “Not everyone is culpable but we are all responsible.” Hearing this, I said to myself, “There is hope for the future.”

I often thought about these words from our tradition:

  • “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (8}

 

  • “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” {9}

 

  • “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” {10}

 

  • “Remember,” we are told.

 

  • “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak,” {11} we are reminded.

 

  • one of our most compelling texts is in the Book of Exodus. Immediately after the incident of the Golden Calf, God said to Moses, “Let Me be that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them” {12}. The Talmud expounds upon the verse in this manner: “[Moses said to himself] If God is telling me to ‘Let [Him] be,’ it must be because davar zeh tah’loo’ee bee/the matter is dependent upon me” {13}, and so in the verse that immediately follows in the Book of Exodus, Moses told God, “Let not Your anger blaze forth against Your people” {14}. At that critical moment, Moses decided to engage because of words we would do well to remember: davar zeh tah’loo’ee bee/“The matter is dependent upon me.”

Our Torah scrolls are not going to Canada or New Zealand. They have endured many journeys through harrowing times and times of redemption, and they are here to teach and inspire today, tomorrow and l’olam va’ed/forever. The demand of the prophets to “do justly and love mercy” – to advocate for the widow, the poor, the stranger and the orphan…to bring the message of social justice to the streets of our nation – will only be actualized if we embrace these words from the Hadisic tradition: “As an individual, you cannot be redeemed until you recognize your flaws and try to mend them. Nor can a nation be redeemed until it recognizes its flaws and tries to mend them. Whoever permits no recognition of his or her flaws – whether an individual or a nation – permits no redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent we recognize ourselves.”

What do we see and what do we hear? The Sh’ma is the watchword of our faith. We say it and sing it with fervor, but what do we really hear and understand? Can we understand the fears of African American parents for their daughters and sons who, according to the Department of Justice, are subject to the systemic racism and brutality of some police departments in our country, or the whims of individual police officers? Can we fathom what it is to be those mothers or fathers, worried this might be the day their children do not return home?

We know about emotional pain as well as physical pain. This past February, over a hundred tombstones were toppled at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. They didn’t fall over because of heavy winds and driving rain. They were deliberately pushed over. Many of us volunteered time over the days that followed to tend the ground where the headstones had fallen. I returned a few days later to say Kaddish over toppled headstones. There were so many it took me over two hours to recite the prayer as I moved from one fallen cluster to another, and I read the inscriptions: “Beloved son…,” “Cherished daughter…” “Mother, grandmother, a woman of valor…,” “A father who loved his family and served his country…” and on and on. When I returned to the synagogue, I sent out a ListServ that read in part, “The uptick in anti-Semitism is a fact. Intolerance in America has fangs.” Little did I know how sharp they would become.

I no longer care for whom you voted in the last presidential election. I am more interested in what you support and what you resist, and what you are doing to help our country heal. We know the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is not true. Words have the power to inflict tremendous pain. Words can be incentives to violence. We have seen this. In Hebrew, the word for “word” is dvar and the word for “thing” is dvar, and we know words have the ability to reduce people of flesh and blood to mere things – to nothings – in the eyes of others. We have seen this. We have experienced it. Our families came from distant shores because they faced the reality of being denigrated, vilified, marginalized and murdered.

They came to this country, a nation founded on the principles stated in the Preamble to the United States Constitution:We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Has that pledge been fulfilled?

I know many of you have been writing to our Senators and representatives in Congress. You have visited their offices here, in Harrisburg and in Washington. You have convened or attended prayer vigils in our community and you have marched in protests in our city. You were with me this past August 28th at the 1,000 Ministers March for Justice in Washington that drew more than 3,000 Americans – clergy and people of all faiths, many wearing tallism and prayer shawls on the shoulders of rabbis, pastors, ministers, priests, imams, Sikhs and monks – who met at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the 54th anniversary of his “I Have A Dream Speech,” a defining moment in the civil rights movement. We were there because of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the President’s statement “There were good people on both sides.” We were there because of the recent Presidential pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. We were there because there is so much wrong in America right now, and we claim the right to kneel, walk and march in the name of justice and acceptance.

From the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial we marched two miles to the Department of Justice seeking safety and justice for the deprived, the despised and the Dreamers {DACA}. Banners held by representatives of different faiths – clergy and laypeople alike – were abundant and magnificent. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Episcopal Church carried a large banner with the words ”Never Place a Period Where God Has Placed a Comma: God is Still Speaking.” A Buddhist monk held a handmade sign that read ”Kindness Takes Courage.” A handmade sign leaning against the speakers’ platform at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial read, “Love Not Hate Makes America Great.” The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center printed placards that read “Do Justice, Love Mercy, March Proudly.” We did so on a day which came to be called ‘a civic sacrament.’

It is comforting when like-minded people speak to each other. It affirms what we believe and makes us feel good, but we need to be speaking with those whose values differ from ours and in whose circles we do not run. I am not usually inclined to do so. What do I have in common with them? I wasn’t even inclined to speak to Texans on a river cruise, but we need to do something far more significant than have feel-nice conversations. We need to heal very serious fissures in our country, and to do this we have to speak with people of different faiths and political persuasions. We have to find a way to work together with them and in the process begin to learn more about each other.

This is why our congregation has formed a relationship with the One America Movement, based in Washington, DC.  It was formed late last year {2016} after the election by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith leaders in response to escalating, divisive rhetoric and behavior during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. It was launched in Washington, DC with the help of Repair the World, a Jewish service organization, to help it connect with service program networks across the country. It is funded by The Awesome Foundation, philanthropists who provide grants and raise funds through donations and gifts for communal projects, and by individuals who give their time and largesse to keep One America moving forward.

In less than nine months, One America has spread to cities throughout America: Cherry Hill, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Tulsa. The goal is to plant ‘seed groups’ in the South and more in the East, North, Midwest, and West. The first meeting in Philadelphia was held here at our congregation in July {11, 2017}. We had a seat at the table and a voice in what is being planned. We were joined by the president of One America, Andrew Hanauer, and representatives of New Life Church, a Presbyterian Church in Glenside, as well as The Islamic Cultural Center of Willow Grove, and the Majidullah Mosque in Philadelphia.

At a follow-up meeting in September {12, 2017}, we formalized plans for members from each house of worship and the Cultural Center to devote time on election day this November at Manna’s soup kitchen in Lansdale to provide a warm, healthy meal to those in need. The meal will be prepared by Syrian refugees who will be paid by Philadelphia’s Awesome Foundation.

Servers from the different houses of worship and the Cultural Center will meet an hour before the meal to greet each other and set up for the afternoon lunch, and rather than disperse afterwards to go home, we will break bread together and talk about what motivated us to spend the day with people of disparate faiths and politics. We’ll have the opportunity to ask each other questions about faith, belief and practices. Then we’ll talk about what else we might do together so we will have talking points for our next meeting.

I’ve woven Pastor Ashley Rossi into our dialogue, which was easy. She is a known and treasured person to our congregation, and her church – Carmel Presbyterian in Glenside – models many of the values we preach and teach. New Life Church is different: 90% of its members are evangelical Christians and 70% of them are politically conservative. We have been in dialogue with their clergy and leaders from the first meeting in July to the second meeting in September, and we intend to move forward together. Over time, we will get to know one another better, understand where we differ and why, and work together to make our community better for everyone. I am so pleased with the enthusiastic response and support of our president, Shelley Chamberlain, and our Board of Trustees.

Davar zeh tah’loo’ee bee/”the matter is dependent upon me.” One plus one, plus one plus one, joining hands with someone else within and reaching beyond the walls of our sanctuary to churches and mosques that have the mutual desire to build bridges, to break bread, and really talk about how we differ and mainly about how together we can heal our nation.

On page 506 of our Machzor for Yom Kippur we read,

“When evil darkens our world, let us be the bearers of light.

When fists are clenched in self-righteous rage, let our hands

be open for the sake of peace.

When injustice slams doors on the ill, the poor, the old, and

the stranger, let us pry the doors open.

Where shelter is lacking, let us be builders.

Where food and clothing are needed, let us be providers.

Where knowledge is denied, let us be champions of learning.

When dissent is stifled, let our voices speak truth to power.

When the earth and its creatures are threatened, let us be their

guardians.

When bias, greed, and bigotry erode our country’s values,

let us proclaim liberty throughout the land.

In the places where no one acts like a human being,

let us bring courage;

let us bring compassion;

let us bring humanity.” {15}

My stereotypes were fully activated when I heard the Texans on the river boat. We had fundamental differences and yet a connection was made. I did not know how long it might last once we all returned home. I’m in touch over the years with other people we’ve met overseas. Did that happen with “the good ol’ boys” from Texas? Yes, and if we lived closer together, who knows where our first steps with the One America Movement might have taken us? But this is where I live and where you live, and there is much work to do, so we best keep talking and believing that we can create a better tomorrow.

We are bearers of light in the looming darkness. We are beacons of hope, and in partnership with One America we will join hands with other Americans of different races, faiths and political persuasions to make our country a better, safer place for all people within our borders and, once again, an inspiration to the world.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin

 

 

 

{1} Genesis 18:21

{2} Genesis 18:23-24

{3} Genesis 18:25

{4} Genesis 18:26

{5} Genesis 18:30

{6} Genesis 18:32

{7} Genesis 18:32

(8} Avot 1:14

{9} Exodus 22:20

{10} Leviticus 19:34

{11} Ecclesiastes 3:7

{12} Exodus 32:10

{13} Berachot 32b

{14} Exodus 32:11

{15} Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 2015